The Public and Correctional Options in Maryland: The Results of a “Deliberative Focus Group”
Michael Connelly, Ph.D.,Kate Wagner, and Greg Jones
State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy
In 1999 the Maryland General Assembly created the State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy (SCCSP). In the Commission’s enabling legislation, the legislators spelled out six goals for sentencing policy in Maryland. The final three goals were: “Prison capacity and prison usage should give priority to the incarceration of violent and career offenders”; “Sentencing policies should preserve meaningful judicial discretion in the imposition of sentences and sufficient flexibility to permit individualized sentences”; and “Sentencing judges in every jurisdiction in the State should be able to impose the most appropriate criminal penalties, including corrections options programs for appropriate offenders” (Chapter 648, Laws of Maryland). Operationally, the final goal was specifically linked to the prior two. Through provision of a range of appropriate correctional options, or alternative sentencing sanctions, judges would be able to use their discretion to give priority prison space to violent and career offenders.
In the powers given the SCCSP by the General Assembly was the requirement that “The Commission shall adopt guidelines to identify defendants who would be appropriate for participation in corrections options programs.” The legislation stated that “The guidelines for corrections options shall be considered by the sentencing court in determining whether to sentence a defendant to corrections options or the ordinary sentence otherwise called for by the sentencing guidelines.” Finally, the General Assembly emphasized that “In deciding whether to sentence a defendant to corrections options, the sentencing court shall give primary consideration to protection of public safety” (Chapter 648, Laws of Maryland).
The Maryland General Assembly clearly intended, therefore, that the SCCSP direct its attention and energies substantially toward study of (1) appropriate programs to be available for judges in their sentencing decisions and (2) appropriate offenders for consideration for sentencing to the programs. To fulfill that mandate, the SCCSP in its first year of operation formed a Corrections Options subcommittee which met regularly to consider costs and implementation requirements involved in delivery of effective correctional option programs for judicial deliberation and use. In its second year of operation, the SCCSP determined that it should investigate the ideas and sentiments of the public toward the problems that it discovered associated with the costs and implementation. Toward that end, the SCCSP staff planned a series of “deliberative focus groups” (DGFs) to help to determine public response. This paper details the operation and results of the initial DFG on correctional options programs.
DFGs: Rationales and Precedents
The 1990s featured increased discussion through books, magazine and academic journal articles, and other media of the need for strengthened democratic participation and governance and for reduced bureaucratization and self-interest in political decision-making (Rauch, 1994; Elshtain, 1995; Lasch, 1995; March and Olson, 1995). Much of the discussion focused on the importance of “social capital” and its development to ensure community viability and progress (Putnam, 1993, 1996, 2000; Fukayama, 1995). These authors supported an environment calling for new mechanisms of public representation and participation.
These calls were not new. The political scientist Robert Dahl had since the early 1970s advocated the use of advisory councils of citizens randomly chosen by lot periodically to question and advise selected officials (1970, 1990, 1998). In 1989 Dahl specifically proposed creation of a “minipopulus” of randomly selected citizens to deliberate and reach “informed judgment” about particular issues for a given period and then to make recommendations regarding them (1989). Similarly, in 1991, the pollster and analyst Daniel Yankelovich explicitly rejected simplistic “public opinion” in favor of informed and deliberated “public judgment” (1991). His work with the Public Agenda Foundation to organize “public choice campaigns” and National Issues Forums has furthered that agenda for almost two decades.
Among public policy specialists Peter deLeon has frequently called for implementing “critical policy analysis” through implementing “participatory policy analysis” (1994). This would require that “public opinion be sought out conscientiously by the policy analyst, who randomly selects, educates, and then listens to a number of citizens,” preferably based on random selection, whose views would be recorded through “policy polling” (1994). The process would avoid (1) incorporating self-interested views of activists and interest group representatives and (2) relying on the uninformed opinion found in common polling. It could be initiated on any level by any willing official and applied to any aspect of the policy process.
DeLeon believes that “citizens generally are willing to engage in activities [like these] in a spirit of personal morality and civic responsibility that transcends strict economic self-interest and remuneration.” He advocates development of “a much more proactive forum procedure in which participants are chosen on a representative basis . . .” in which participants “share a certain body of information and procedures . . . .” The process would not be designed for constant use but for “judiciously” selected opportunities “when feasible.” Most promising of all, he feels that, if “taken seriously by citizens, analysts, and policymakers, [this process] might very well renew what many observers have called a flagging faith in government” (1994).
Application of these proposals has to date been slight. The best known and most ambitious effort came from James Fishkin and his implementation of a “deliberative opinion poll” (1991, 1995). This process, as proposed by Fishkin, would bring together randomly selected citizens prior to a presidential election to listen to and question candidates directly and then to deliberate among themselves to hear different viewpoints before definitively selecting their choices for an opinion poll. The National Issues Convention in January 1996 attempted to hold such a polling procedure to identify key election year issues and to hear from presidential candidates. Despite coverage by major news media and being broadcast by the Public Broadcasting System, however, several major candidates chose not to appear, and critics attacked the artificiality and poor representativeness of the event as a whole. Fishkin himself admitted implementation problems such as recruitment, costs in money and time, logistics and scheduling, and incentives for citizen participation (Berke, 1996).
More modestly, a western Oklahoma school district in 1994 attempted a local version of Fishkin’s concept, what its implementers called a “deliberative opinion caucus” (Connelly and Moss, 1998). The district hoped to develop a mechanism to separate what truly informed community opinion on issues would be from the almost daily claims by representatives of special interests to know what the community wanted and what was best for it. Officials selected a topic of general but not pressing interest to the district. They randomly selected from voter registration lists for the district a large enough number of possible participants to be reasonably representative of the community as a whole. Only about ten percent of those contacted agreed to participate, however, and, of those, twenty-five percent did not attend. The officials waited to poll the participants until they had heard presentations on the topic and had discussed it in small groups with other participants. In retrospect, although they asked respondents how/if their views had changed, the organizers concluded that they did not get as good an understanding of the effect of the event as had they polled before and then after and compared the results.
At first glance the low participation rate and the inability to note clearly changes from “uninformed” to “informed” policy seemed to mark the event as a failure. However, the organizers concluded, based on questions about the event as well as the topic, that participants had benefited from and valued attending. In fact, they had called for more events in the future, in which they would agree to participate and recommend that others do the same. The organizers strongly believed that the lack of effective incentives for participation had inhibited the desired outcome and recommended that planners of future events of this type, especially if faced with a similarly low level of resources, consider carefully how to overcome this deficit.
Other efforts to apply the “deliberative opinion” approach to policy issues have been performed by Fishkin and his associates in Great Britain. Their first topic was criminal justice. Three hundred residents of Manchester met over a weekend in April; they did “before-after” surveys sandwiching discussions of problems and concerns about criminal justice in Britain. According to Fishkin, after discussion and deliberation, the participants showed the following changes:
- “The respondents show an increased sense of the limitations of prison as a tool for fighting crime.
- “The respondents show an increased willingness to employ alternatives to prison, both for juveniles and for offenders more generally.
- “The responses [sic] show an increased sensitivity to procedural rights of defendants.
- “In spite of the increased sensitivity to procedural rights, the respondents remain tough on crime. They have not been turned into ‘liberals’: they remain impatient with the impediments to getting a conviction.
- “The respondents also show movement toward traditional values.
- “Respondents show increased knowledge on [the] issue of crime.” (1995, italics in original.)
By 1998 Fishkin and his associates had completed four other deliberative polling sessions in Great Britain, all broadcast nationally, on British attitudes toward Europe, the future of the monarchy, electoral issues, and the priorities of the National Health Service. Denmark officials had also performed deliberative polling regarding the nation’s reception of the Euro. The only reported case of deliberative polling in the U.S. since the 1996 election was a study of public views of utility issues from 1996-1998, sponsored not by public officials but by utility companies. Other than occasional community forums held by the League of Women Voters along somewhat similar lines, attention to “informed” public opinion seems limited to Fishkin’s work and influence. (For a full presentation of Fishkin’s work, see the papers on his web site, www.la.texas.edu/research/delpol/papers.)
Two aspects of Fishkin’s design make use of “deliberative” and “informed” mechanisms by public agencies problematic. One, the requirement of randomly selected participants to ensure representativeness of responses forces users to devote significant resources to developing a proper pool of possible respondents, such as going to appropriate offices to pull voter registration lists. Staff are not routinely available at state or local offices for such activities. Plus, Fishkin and his associates note that their own events have frequently had problems with actual participation rates of those randomly selected, creating concerns about representativeness. These low participation rates result despite the second problematic aspect of the design-Fishkin had enough resources to fund an attractive, expense-paid weekend retreat for the large number of participants who do attend. Few agencies have money, not to mention personnel, set aside for providing hotels, food, travel, etc., for 200 or so citizens who are necessary to establish representativeness. Even in the Oklahoma case, as seen, in which voter lists were used to pull a random sample, without special incentives, actual participation will likely be low even in a small community with easy access to the event. Therefore, without special sponsorship or official interest, it is unlikely that average public agencies could ever match Fishkin’s efforts, despite the broad calls for such mechanisms.
Although showing promise for public input and greater satisfaction with government decisions, deliberative polling mechanisms have not generated substantial interest among U.S. policymakers. This may, however, simply be the result of the Catch-22 of needing to show results before generating interest but not being able to show results because interest has not been generated. The most likely type of public body to use deliberative mechanisms as described above would be one with creative members committed to constructing greater public trust as well as incorporating informed public opinion into its decision-making.
The move to a sentencing commission in Maryland was in part due to policymakers’ perceptions of decreasing public confidence in the state’s criminal justice process. Greater uniformity and certainty in sentencing combined with emphasis on public safety and fiscal responsibility would help to restore the public trust in the state system (MCSSP, 1998a). In its operations, the SCCSP has continued to stress the importance of public confidence as a criterion for its policy recommendations. One area of criminal justice which the SCCSP is legislatively mandated to consider and in which public confidence is frequently lacking is the development and use of correctional options in sentencing. Therefore, logically, the need for public education and input on the SCCSP’s deliberations in this area was conspicuous. To address that need, SCCSP staff adapted the deliberative, informed opinion mechanisms discussed above and located a jurisdiction willing to allow preliminary testing.
The DFG in Howard County, Maryland
As the SCCSP considered different options for citizen education and feedback, its staff proposed a “deliberative focus group” as one possibility, focusing on correctional options. Rather than seek representativeness through random selection of participants and to avoid the previously mentioned resource and logistical problems, staff suggested holding several DFGs in various communities of varying types across the state. The responses of these groups, individually and pooled when all were completed, would be explicitly tempered by detailing of their composition and location. Users of the information would be able to adjust their interpretations based on the expressed elements of each group. While not statistically reliable, the results would nevertheless provide valuable information and feedback as well as serving the SCCSP’s public education and confidence-building goals. Staff believed that this approach was more than “half a loaf,” especially when following a Fishkin-like model was beyond its capacity financially or in available personnel.
Receiving the SCCSP’s approval of its proposal, its staff then had to identify an initial jurisdiction to sponsor the first DFG and to assist in identifying available facilities and pools of possible participants. SCCSP Commissioner Marna McLendon, representing the State’s Attorney’s Association as Howard County State’s Attorney, volunteered her office and county for the pilot program.
Howard County is located in northeast Maryland and is well-suited for commuters working in either Washington, D.C. or Baltimore. It is known for its middle- and upper-middle-class residents and for an orientation toward community involvement, exemplified by its major city, Columbia, originally a planned community of neighborhood associations. In a predominantly Democratic state, Howard County has elected several Republicans, including State’s Attorney McLendon and State Senator Christopher McCabe, who authored an early bill to create a sentencing commission and another to develop the state’s correctional options system. Conversations with both officials demonstrated them to be strong advocates of community responsibility and activity in policymaking.
Experienced with the use of ordinary focus groups, State’s Attorney McLendon provided lists of persons contacted for groups in Howard County. Her staff and SCCSP staff culled from the lists activists or public officials related in some way to correctional options, leaving a pool of 55 possible participants. All were contacted by SCCSP staff. The goal of the staff was to have a final group of 12-20 actual participants, a group that could be accommodated with a dinner and available county facilities. A group of 12-20 could also be easily broken into smaller groups of desirable size for the kinds of intensive discussions envisioned.
With a month lead-time before the August 14, 2001, meeting in Columbia, MD, SCCSP staff first constructed a letter briefly explaining the DFG and its date and location. This letter was sent to all the possible participants from State’s Attorney McLendon’s office along with a cover letter from her endorsing the project. The SCCSP letter informed the receiver that a follow-up call asking for participation would come the next week. SCCSP staff performed the initial calls and got agreements from fifteen members of the pool of possibilities to participate. Each positive respondent then was sent a survey asking for initial perceptions of various aspects of correctional options programs and was requested not to do any independent research on the topic before responding. They were asked to create their own identification number for use on the survey and to bring with them to the meeting for the “after” survey; this would allow both anonymity and later comparison of answers. (The letters, telephone protocol, and survey are available in the appendix of this report.)
The respondents were given a week to return the surveys in a self-addressed envelope provided by the SCCSP. They were then mailed a packet of materials, including government publications, magazine and journal articles, and newspaper clippings on offenders who had been in an options program and succeeded or failed, describing corrections options, their implementation, and accompanying problems. (SCCSP staff knew from the experience of other efforts that the preliminary introductory materials had to be as balanced as possible to avoid negative reaction from the participants.) The day before the meeting, SCCSP staff again phoned the fifteen participants to remind them of the DFG, to thank them once more for participating, and to troubleshoot any remaining problems.
On the evening of August 14, the meeting began at 6:00 p.m. with a buffet dinner and initial introductions. Fourteen of the fifteen expected participants appeared. State’s Attorney McLendon spoke briefly to welcome and inform the group as to the importance of their willingness to be the first Maryland group to be in a DFG and of their responses to the SCCSP and other state policymakers. SCCSP staff then provided a twenty minute overview of material not found in their packets regarding (1) actual costs of program delivery in Maryland and nationally and (2) different means of structuring delivery of correctional options among state and local jurisdictions. Following this presentation, the participants “counted off” into three smaller groups and met in different locations of the room provided by the county. Each group addressed a set of topics provided by SCCSP staff from the questions on the survey. The members were asked to share viewpoints, to let others share as well, and to develop any questions about the topic that had not been covered in the written materials or presentation.
After approximately forty minutes of discussion and only one new question, the participants counted off again for new groups. In those groups, they shared what each of their first groups had discussed and traded more viewpoints. After approximately twenty minutes of discussion, when it was clear that the conversations had maximized their capacity, the participants were again given the survey that they had originally completed. In addition, they completed a set of questions about their views of the DFG itself. When they were done, they were thanked again by SCCSP staff and left. Several stayed behind to talk with each other and staff a bit longer before departing around 9:30 p.m.
DFG Survey Results-Correctional Options
The survey asked mostly closed-ended questions, but then provided opportunity to follow up with open-ended responses explaining the responses. Most of the participants provided the self-selected identification number, but 4 did not. Also, the missing participant completed the first survey but did not take the second. Therefore, exact matching and comparison of the surveys proved impossible. Nevertheless, some comparison of individual responses from those who followed directions was possible.
The first question asked directly whether the respondent favored state and/or local development and use of correctional options programs. Previous work for the SCCSP predecessor commission had determined through a basic opinion poll that Marylanders did favor correctional options for some offenders and some offenses, depending on stated circumstances. Generally speaking, the less violent or habitual the offender, the less serious the offense, the more likely that a majority of Maryland respondents would agree to non-incarcerative sentences (MCCSP, 1998b). The Howard County residents strongly agreed with the need for some type of program statewide, both before and after the DFG. In the “before” survey, 11 checked “yes” to adoption, 1 “no,” and 1 “don’t know”; in the “after” survey, 12 said “yes,” 1 “no,” and 1 “don’t know.”
The second questioned offered a variety of structural options for delivery of correctional options programs. Responses to this question showed substantial change after deliberation. Prior to the DFG, 3 respondents felt that programs should be run through the state’s Division of Parole & Probation, 2 through a specially created unit for the purpose, 0 through the counties funded either by the state or the counties themselves, 4 through a partnership of the state and counties with state funding and oversight, and 3 through either the state or the counties providing their own programs and responsibility. After the DFG, those numbers changed to 0,0,2,0,8, and 3, respectively. In other words, after discussion and deliberation, the participants came to favor heavily a system of county provision of corrections options with state funding and oversight.
A major problem for correctional options programs in Maryland and nationally has historically been inadequate levels of funding for maximum delivery. When asked before the DFG where any additional funding for the development and implementation of correctional options should come from, the respondents unanimously rejected a tax increase. Given only one choice of options by the survey, 4 preferred charges on offenders, 3 said funds should be shifted from other areas of the Department of Public Safety, 4 said the shifting should come from the overall state budget, and 2 indicated “other.” The “after” survey showed only a move away from pulling money from Public Safety; the other options remained the same while only 1 respondent wanted the money to come from the department. The “other” category grew to 6 in favor.
Respondents had several ideas for the “other” means to fund these programs. One felt that the offender should pay a portion of the costs depending on his/her income, with the remained split between the state (2/3rds of remainder) and the county (1/3rd of remainder). Another advocated greater use of traffic and other court fines, including red light fines. This proposal was echoed by another participant, who added “Maryland State Lottery.” One respondent felt the funding should come from selling the “spoils” of “drug dealing and thievery.” Finally, one participant advocated taking the program national and having federal funding.
Frequently in discussions of correctional options programs in Maryland, the concept of a “ladder of graduated sanctions” has been invoked. This refers to the ability to move offenders in a program “up” or “down” in level of sanctions and/or conditions to be met, depending on the offender’s performance in the program. The “ladder” concept allows officials to reward offenders for good behavior and to increase penalties for those who do not live up to expectations. In some cases, advocates have included even a few days of incarceration as a possible sanction for inadequate performance. The “ladder” was described in the survey, and respondents were asked whether they supported it. “Before,” 9 did, 2 did not, and 1 did not know; “after,” 13 did, 1 did not, and 0 did not know. This indicates that citizens can understand the concept and may grow more supportive of it after a chance to listen to others and to learn more about it.
Before the DFG, 3 respondents thought that only the judge should have the authority to move the offender “up” or “down” the ladder, 0 thought only the offender’s supervising agent should, and 7 thought either should. After the DFG, 2 said judge only, 1 agent only, and 10 either. Finally, 2 participants thought that supervising agents should be able to commit offenders to brief incarceration without a judge’s approval in the “before” survey, while 4 said “no” and 2 said “don’t know.” In the “after” survey, 8 said “yes,” 3 “no,” and 0 “don’t know.” This again indicates that, with discussion and deliberation about this relatively unfamiliar concept, respondents made significant changes in their opinions regarding the “ladder.”
Respondents did not fully accept the “either-or” nature of the question put to them in this case. Of those who added written commentary to the questions, most expressed wariness of taking the process completely away from a judge’s supervision, although the numbers here were small. Of most interest among the written responses was the proposal that, rather than relying on judges or supervising agents, the state should develop a system of court magistrates on call specially to deal with questions of movement “up” or “down” the ladder, especially for incarcerative sanctions.
The opinion poll by the predecessor commission found that Marylanders were less supportive of correctional options being offered to offenders committing violent crimes. This was reflected as well in the “before” responses to the question of whether any violent offenders should be considered for options programs. Of those answering, 3 said “yes,” 6 “no,” and 3 “don’t know.” But “after,” 8 said “yes” while the number saying “no” stayed the same and the “don’t know” dropped to 0. Among these discussants, then, the DFG seemed to have the effect of moving them toward more open consideration of these types of offenders for correctional options sentences.
The written supplements to this question well reflected the answers to the closed-end questions. Of those willing to consider violent offenders for correctional options, one said, “Case by case basis-first offenders-minor assaults not involving weapons with approval of victim. With stipulation of immediate incarceration upon further incidents during punishment phase.” Another, whose answer was “Chemical imbalanced, mental deficiencies, first-time offenders not committing murder,” exemplified the rest of the favorable group.
Finally, SCCSP staff in its presentation emphasized that, just like probation and prison, some offenders in options programs would fail, sometimes dramatically in the news media; staff explained that the political costs of those failures often inhibited support for correctional options programs. So, participants were asked what level of success in terms of later recidivism rates they were willing to support for correctional options programs compared to regular probation or imprisonment. “Before” the DFG, 1 respondent said that he/she would accept recidivism rates “higher” than probation, 6 said “lower,” and 4 said “the same.” “After” the DFG, 2 said “higher,” 9 “lower,” and 1 “the same.” Participants held options to an even slightly higher standard compared to prison. “Before,” 0 said “higher” recidivism rates than prison would be acceptable, 7 “lower,” and 4 “the same.” “After,” 1 said “higher,” 8 “lower,” and 3 “the same.” In other words, these respondents believed that correctional options programs would have to be more successful than probation or prison to be acceptable.
Respondents preferring higher standards for recidivism rates did so out of the belief that only that justified adding cost and effort to the system. As one said, “If these options don’t improve on the existing systems-why go to this trouble (can’t just go on a cost/benefit ratio).” Those accepting the same recidivism rates as prison, however, reasoned that the system would receive the same result at lower cost.
The last two questions in the survey were open-ended. The first acknowledged that some offenders in correctional options will fail, just as they do on probation or when released from prison. The respondents were asked what policymakers and practitioners, hesitant to recommend these programs as a result of public reaction to heinous cases, should do to gain the most possible public support. The participants replied that the officials should do continual public relations, through press releases and public forums, educating the public as to the positive results of the programs. The respondents also felt that the officials should stress the non-violent criteria for participation in the programs and the money saved by diverting offenders from prison into the programs.
The second question asked what the policymakers and practitioners should do to address public concerns when the offenders fail. Most stressed responsible, honest, factual answers to public questions and the importance of demonstrating the overall success of the programs compared to the alternatives. Others focused on compiling good data bases on those who fail and developing guidelines incorporating the findings into selection processes. Several advocated assuming a more holistic view of crime and its causes and pulling professionals from education, health, and other areas into planning and implementation.
DFG Survey Results-The DFG
As a final part of the DFG, respondents were asked to evaluate the exercise. Various aspects of the DFG were listed, and participants had to rate each on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being “very satisfied” with the DFG and 7 “very dissatisfied.” Each item, its range of ratings, and its mean average score on the scale are listed below:
|The overall value of the exercise||2.62||1-5|
|Your opportunity to say what was on your mind||1.92||1-7|
|Others’ opportunities to say what was on their minds||2.08||1-7|
|Advance preparation materials||1.92||1-6|
|Advance contact by SCCSP staff||2.38||1-4|
|Answers to questions developed within the groups||2.46||1-7|
Note that, while some items did receive the full range of possible ratings, all had at least one participant “very satisfied,” and the overall rating of the DFG (the highest mean average) was less than 3, in the “satisfied” range. Only two respondents rated the DFG at 5, indicating slight dissatisfaction. These responses, therefore, indicate a strong positive response to the exercise itself. This interpretation is reinforced by the last question asked, “If asked again, would you participate in another Deliberative Focus Group?” Of the 14 participants, 12 said “yes,” 1 said “don’t know,” and 1 did not answer. None of the group said “no.”
Summary and Recommendations
In response to the need to develop mechanisms to educate and receive feedback from the public regarding sentencing issues, the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy (SCCSP) allowed its staff to organize and hold a pilot “Deliberative Focus Group” (DFG) in Howard County, Maryland, in August 2001. Based on ideas on participative democracy from the academic community and the experience of a few practitioners, the DFG focused on correctional options, a topic of long concern among the state’s criminal justice policymakers. Fourteen participants completed a survey and reviewed information about correctional options prior to the meeting. They then came to the meeting to discuss and deliberate among themselves before completing the survey again. Their responses gave SCCSP staff a wide range of views on the important policy topic.
Overall, the participants favored correctional options for appropriate non-violent, non-habitual offenders; some even indicated, after group discussion, willingness to extend the sanctions to minor violent offenders. They believed that the best system of options provision would feature county delivery, funded and overseen by the state. They did not prefer major new revenue sources or increases to pay for the programs; their preferences were for a mix of current sources, including fines, offender charges, and the state lottery. The participants expressed willingness, especially after group discussion, to give the offenders’ supervising agents significant powers over their movement “up” or “down” a “ladder of graduated sanctions.” They did not enthusiastically embrace a complete divorce of the sentencing judge from oversight of the agents or offenders, however.
The participants also indicated that they would hold correctional options programs to higher standards in terms of recidivism rates than they currently hold probation or prison. Their reasoning was that, as a new approach, correctional options would have to do better in order to justify going beyond the current status quo. Finally, when asked about the inevitable failures of some offenders in correctional options programs, the participants urged officials to be proactive in building support for the programs before trouble arose and to be honest and forthcoming in their reaction to offenders whose failures drew public attention and media coverage.
When asked their views about the DFG itself, the participants stated almost unanimous satisfaction with the process. None said s/he would not participate if asked again in the future, and ratings of various elements of the process all fell well within the “satisfied” range.
Initial interpretation of the results of the DFG finds promise for the technique in the future on correctional options or other selected topics. The approach appears to offer state or local agencies pressed for resources a viable alternative to the more extravagantly sponsored models run by Fishkin and his associates. The major problems for SCCSP staff were finding an interested host and deriving an adequate pool of potential participants. With the success of this DFG and its publicization, it is possible that other jurisdictions will be willing to host them and to assist in finding similar pools of available citizens.
The DFG also showed promise for building greater public confidence in the policy process and for developing useful information and suggestions for particular policies. Participants expressed personal benefit from their involvement, changed their views to some degree after discussion and deliberation with their colleagues, and contributed several valuable ideas and viewpoints for consideration by policymakers and practitioners. While not statistically representative, findings include (1) support for correctional options generally, (2) support and opposition to various means of structuring and financing them, (3) interest in the “ladder of graduated sanctions” and concern about the authority of those who invoke it, (4) conditions under which violent offenders might be considered for the programs, and (5) advocacy of a proactive and honest approach from responsible officials if/when offenders publicly fail in the programs. In addition, the participants offered suggestions for serious consideration if/when statewide correctional options programs are debated, including (1) development of special magistrates with legal authority to “operate” the “ladder,” (2) provision of correctional options to violent offenders with mental or chemical problems, and (3) holding the programs to a higher standard of success in reducing recidivism than probation or prison historically have been held to.
In conclusion, the piloting of the DFG in Howard County appears to have generated enough positive contribution in terms of both citizen input and public education to justify holding more in other communities around the state. With enough events and enough diversity among the groups, the problem of lacking statistical representativeness can be substantially overcome, and data from those different types of groups should well inform any policy deliberations on the future of statewide correctional options in Maryland.
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